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Home » Officer Columns » Executive Board Members » Now is the Time to Unite, Not to Unravel

Now is the Time to Unite, Not to Unravel

  -  International Executive Board Member and President of Local 105 (Spokane, WA)

We are in the most dangerous moment of my lifetime, but the reason is not the obvious one you may think. The real danger is that we lose our will and give up. Instead, let’s use this time to do our internal work, build strength, and dream.

I draw strength from my local, AFM 105 (Spokane, WA). I remember first noticing the elaborately decorated local charter hanging on the wall and having no idea it was a real document. The flowery language and beautiful calligraphy showed the date as 19—. I thought it was just a pretty picture, then in the spring of 2000 we received a certificate from the AFM in celebration of our 100th anniversary. Mystery solved.

I think about that first 100 years and what the local survived: the 1918 flu, disruptions caused by World War I, Prohibition and the roaring ’20s.

The Great Depression put us in food lines for years. My family still laughs about my father, a bass player, who grew up during the Depression and always had a jar of strings marked “too short to use.” There’s a story in the book The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan about a farmer in a mostly deserted town with neighbors and friends leaving or dying from dust pneumonia. He sent his family away, sold everything of value, but kept his piano and would perform in town to earn money for food.

I met Timothy Egan at an Idaho for the Humanities function in Coeur d’Alene, and told him how frustrating it was that he included that story. It threw into my face that musicians in a healthy economy struggled to get paid. The light came on that the reason musicians were struggling had nothing to do with ability to pay. Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

My dad was drafted into World War II serving on a destroyer in the South Pacific. When the war was over, he came home and played music the rest of his life. He rarely talked about his experience, but said occasionally that when on shore leave, he would be asked to fill in with military dance bands. He was compensated for the extra work.

A parallel story was told to me by the former secretary-treasurer of Toledo, Local 15-286, Charles McDaniel. Charles served on a ship in WWII, a different experience as a black man serving his country. Charles was a saxophonist also asked to play with bands under similar circumstances, but regulations at the time would not allow compensation for his work. Charles passed away in July 2010; he is missed.

Europe after WWII invested in their arts and culture. As they rebuilt their war-ravaged countries, many also made an effort to invest in their concert venues and the musicians who could revitalize the human spirit.

After the war, Local 105 thrived as racism continued to rear its ugly head. Segregated locals had formed so that primarily black musicians denied membership in white locals could band together and gain the benefits of union membership. Black locals had full complements of officers attending AFM Conventions, they bought buildings and built treasure. Black and white locals in some communities, like Los Angeles, chose to merge their locals prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Locals that didn’t were forced to merge and are identified by their dual numbers like Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) and Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA).

I’m fortunate to have heard these stories from musicians who lived it, never giving up on change. We are stronger together.

These stories have been about the US experience, but as Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau recently related, after his famous 21 seconds of silence, the US is not alone. Different, but the same.

Let’s take this time to work toward coming back stronger. Let’s reach out to each other, lend strength and support, and commit to the change needed to become the family that musicians truly are. An injury to one is an injury to all. We need to be ready to stand together and demand that our governments not only rebuild infrastructure but also rebuild the human spirit by supporting our collective work.

A key part of taking care of each other is by not going back to work too soon. Follow recommended safety protocols, wear masks, social distance. The pandemic will end. Let’s commit now that the other side will be better for all of us, not just some of us. Love to you all.

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